Happy first Friday of Lent, Reader, if such a thing can be deemed “happy.” Lent, though traditionally a pretty rough space for me, is actually a good time to go internal and take stock of one’s faith journey. It also happens to start smack in the middle of midterms this year, which I think is God foregoing actually saying anything and just chucking me out in the wilderness.
It’s been a really, really long week.
Part of it, though, was officiating for the very first time at an Ash Wednesday service. There’s one other student pastor at the church where I serve now and she and I were put in charge of the entire service: plan it, prep it, preach it. So we did; we met twice to plan what hymns we wanted and write the liturgy. We each wrote half of the sermon and then preached it as alternating voices. We got to the church early to move furniture and set the scene, making sure everything was in place just as it needed to be.
And, human endeavor that it was, things went wrong. My lapel mic came off my robe just as I stood to begin the sermon—I seriously should get all of the theatre points for how calmly I grabbed it and reattached it. Then there was a bat that decided to join us for a couple of laps around the sanctuary in the middle of the sermon. Yes, a bat. I’m not kidding. And I nearly ran out of oil as I was working my way through the ashes. This is what the pastoral life is, Reader; it’s super human. Sorry if that’s breaking any cherished notions for you.
But it’s also incredibly holy. This is the second time in my life I’ve ever put ashes on someone else, and the only other time was on Interpreter and that had all sorts of emotional complications going on. But this; this was feeling the oil and cold ash against my thumb, feeling the warmth of people’s skin as I placed my fingertips at their temples and drew the sign of the cross. This was standing by the Christ candle and watching its flame flicker against the semi-darkness of our shadowed sanctuary. This was hearing What Wondrous Love Is This roll down out of the choir loft behind me and remembering the times I have hummed that to myself on the chancel steps back home when I felt so completely separated from God and so terribly cold in my very soul. This was raising my hands in benediction to this congregation with whom God has entrusted me and feeling the fiery warmth of praying that I will be worthy of that trust, of praying that they will be open to God’s Spirit. The pastoral life is a terrifying and electrifying gift.
As we move throughout these forty days, I want to take a page out of the sermon my friend and I preached this past Wednesday in terms of imagining and fleshing out the story of the wilderness to which we’re called in this season. What does our wilderness look like? How does the temperature vary, with the extremes of heat and cold that such landscapes have? Where are the rocks upon which we trip? What plants struggle towards the rain that rarely comes? Let us imagine ourselves into this space, Reader. Let us name our wilderness, that we may hear our names from the One Who walks it with us.
Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. (Exodus 14:19-20, ESV)